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Analysis: Don't rebuild on the floodplain

Photo by Robert Criss

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 21, 2008 - According to George Bernard Shaw, "We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future."

How can we apply this wisdom to the flooding challenges in St. Louis area? The Great Flood of 1993 - deemed the most destructive flood in recorded history - caused nearly $16 billion in damage. Yet, the St. Louis area is in the forefront of floodplain development, with half of it occurring on floodplains that were under water in 1993.

Nicholas M. Pinter, a geologist from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, reported "The St. Louis area is the epicenter of floodplain encroachment nationwide." As a result, the floodplain has lost its sponge-like ability to soak up the flowing river waters.

Professor Robert Criss, Ph.D., Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University tells us in Science Daily that "When people build commercial or residential real estate in flood plains, when they build on sink holes, when they build on fault lines, when they build on the hillsides in L.A. that are going to burn and burn, over and over again, they're ignoring geologic reality. They're asking for chronic problems." 

Hurricane Katrina and the flood damage it caused to the New Orleans community in 2005 prompted new flood control discussions. But, regretfully, the bottom line remained unchanged. Building more levees and increased development in floodplain regions are not suitable corrective measures. What should be done now that the waters are subsiding?

The answer lies in comprehensive floodplain management policies. It's essential that citizens, businesses and environmental organizations (including the St. Louis University Center for Environmental Science) work with federal, state and local government representatives to devise a realistic solution that's predicated upon how best to live in flood-prone regions. This will perpetuate better floodplain management, prevention, and response. There is no simple resolution to the floodplain dilemma, but here are some ideas for consideration:

  • Return floodplains and wetlands to their original state, thereby reclaiming natural sponges
  • Modify or remove existing levees to widen flood channels
  • Establish within the floodplain a recession or setback zone
  • Develop a local ruling to provide for the protection of the coastal infrastructure
  • Cease further building in the floodplain, open spaces, and wetlands
  • Enhance flood monitoring and warning systems
  • Restrict dredging
  • Properly plan and support water management and drainage systems
  • Offer incentives for businesses and residents to relocate from the floodplain
  • Require that homeowners and businesses have flood insurance
  • Beef up the buyout program designed to free-up floodplains
  • Promote non-commercial and non-residential use of floodplains and wetlands
  • Design commercial property and homes that are more suitable for flood vicinities
  • Press for quick floodplain map modernization
  • Require flood-proofing for residential and business structures presently in a floodplain
  • Review and alter land-use policies for commercial and public use of floodplain districts
  • Adopt provisions to protect animal wildlife and natural vegetation
  • Plant trees and shrub to help prevent erosion

Professor Criss summarized the issue St. Louis confronts when he stated, "We ignore the natural system in what we do. These are floodplains. What do we expect of floodplains? They're great places to farm or construct a park. Losing crops that most likely are insured is different than losing millions of dollars per acre of buildings and infrastructure and, in some cases, lives."
Flood damage reduction measures must be undertaken swiftly, sincerely and continuously. Flooding is a natural occurrence that cannot be eliminated, but can be reckoned with proper response to flood hazardsto avert disaster. 

Gloria Donaldson, Atlanta, Ga., is a freelance writer.

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